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Budget Problems and Complex Rules Reduce Lunches for Poor Children


Last summer, Covina Park bustled with the energy of children eating free lunches, courtesy of a federal program designed to provide low-income youngsters with nutritious meals during vacation.

This year, the park is quiet, the food program dropped by the city of Covina because of a budget crunch and doubt that federal reimbursements would cover the costs.

In Compton, where children received free summer lunches last year, alternatives are being sought after several community groups chose not to sponsor the lunches anymore because of complex rules and onerous paperwork.

The Covina and Compton cases are not isolated. Nationally and in California, the summer nutrition program is struggling, plagued by a loss of sponsors and inability to meet the needs of millions of eligible children. The program is the largest federal effort to feed low-income children during the summer--the same children who depend on free breakfasts and lunches at school to promote their health, development and school readiness.

In 2001, the number of sponsors for the summer programs in California declined 6%, according to recent studies. That was part of a national trend in which 47,000 fewer children--a decline of 2.3% from the year before--received the summer meals.

Advocates said the trend appears to be continuing this year. In addition to the loss of sponsors they blame the public's spotty awareness of the meals.

Matt Sharpe, regional director of California Food Policy Advocates, a group that works to ease hunger, recalled his efforts to enlist six Los Angeles-area churches to sponsor new feeding sites this year. All declined.

"Some said it was too much government hassle, too much paperwork," he said. "Some said they hadn't realized how many children they would have to feed to break even."

Some counties in California lost more ground last year than others, according to a recent survey by Food Policy Advocates. In Ventura County, the number of sites serving free lunches dropped to three in 2001 from 20 in 2000. The number of sites in Los Angeles serving food declined to 616 from 656. Orange County managed to maintain most of its centers, even though some sponsors dropped out.

"For kids on summer recess in these areas, not having access to the summer lunch program puts their families in a difficult position," said Michael Flood, executive director of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, which helps on outreach for the program. "For many, the only other option is charitable food from a pantry."

Beginnings in 1968

Congress initiated the summer lunches as a pilot program in 1968 and extended it nationwide in 1975. School districts, nonprofits, universities, and city, county and Indian tribal governments can be sponsors.

Many sites also provide recreational and educational activities. The sponsors can prepare their own meals or contract food preparation out and be reimbursed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But advocates say the department's guidelines--some of them meant to prevent fraud--pose barriers for sponsors. In addition, Congress, in overhauling welfare laws, cut reimbursement rates and eliminated some start-up funds.

The city of Covina dropped its one summer meal site this year after anticipating that it would not be able to pay $4,000 for staffing, said the recreation services supervisor, Carren Chaney. For example, sponsors have to make sure that parents don't eat the food.

"Last year was a very positive experience," said Chaney of the 5,200 lunches served in 10 weeks. "We hope to reinstate the program for next fiscal year. Unfortunately, this year, with budget cuts looming, we just couldn't include it in our planning."

Keith Rodgers, who helps to direct a city-run day camp at Compton's Gonzales Park, said the summer lunch program attracted many families. But after it was dropped by its church sponsor a year ago, some families now go to charitable food giveaways once or twice a month.

"It was a good program for the community, but they need to smooth out the regulations," Rodgers added.

At East Los Angeles' Casa Maravilla recently, about 120 children gobbled box lunches of pizza, burritos, fruit, milk and cookies. Rudy Rodriguez, manager at the site--one of 14 sponsored by East Los Angeles College--said the numbers of kids getting free lunches increase toward the end of the month as family food budgets dwindle.

Rodriguez said he understands the needs of such families. He participated in the summer lunch program as a youngster 20 years ago in the same neighborhood.

"It got tough for my mom with six kids to feed," said Rodriguez.

Leonarda Garcia, who was at Casa Maravilla with five of her children, ranging in age from 4 to 13, said most of her friends depend on the free summer lunches to save money and provide their children with something other than junk food.

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